Global Policy Forum

UN: Limited Choice Mars Rights Body Election

Following the recent UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) elections where ten out of fifteen countries ran unopposed, Human Rights Watch (HRW) argues that the lack of competition undermines the legitimacy of the UNHRC. Without competitive elections, states can become members without having their human rights records challenge, undermining the expectation that UNHRC members “uphold the highest standards of human rights.”  This is particularly problematic because the UNHRC is already criticized for having members with poor human rights records.

Human Rights Watch
May 20, 2011

Elections for the United Nations Human Rights Council on May 20, 2011, fell short of the General Assembly's intention that states should compete for membership based on their records, Human Rights Watch said today. The UN General Assembly voted for new council members in elections in which only two of five regional groups put forward competitive slates.

"Without competition for seats on the Human Rights Council, the membership standards set by the General Assembly become meaningless," said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Manufactured slates of candidates may be easier for states, but they are bad for the council."

Ten of the fifteen countries elected were virtually assured of success because there was no competition for the seats assigned to their regions. Under the current system, states are reluctant to compete for seats on the council, and states challenging endorsed candidates face both stigma and concrete repercussions, Human Rights Watch said.

The problem was evident this year when no country was willing to challenge Syria's candidacy within the Asian regional group despite Syria's brutal crackdown on demonstrations that has resulted in the reported deaths of more than 800 people. Human rights groups from around the world had appealed to no avail for other states in the Asian group to enter the race.

The Asian group ultimately avoided the travesty of Syria being elected only by convincing Syria to withdraw on May 11 and nominating Kuwait in its stead. Kuwait was elected from the Asia group on May 20 along with India, Indonesia, and the Philippines without opposition.

"Syria's candidacy was obviously beyond the pale, but the issue is why it was able to run uncontested for a council seat in the first place," Hicks said. "Kuwait's human rights record may be preferable to Syria's, but that's a remarkably low bar to meet." 

On March 1, the General Assembly unanimously suspended the membership rights of Libya, only nine months after Libya was elected to the council on a closed slate put forward by the African regional group in the 2010 election. The African group again nominated a closed slate, and Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, and the Republic of Congo were all elected to the council without opposition.

The Latin American and Caribbean states (GRULAC) put forward four candidates for three seats. Chile, Costa Rica, and Peru were elected, while Nicaragua's bid for a seat failed. In this election's other contested slate, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Georgia competed for two seats, with the Czech Republic and Romania being elected.

For the third year in a row, the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) offered a closed slate, and Austria and Italy were elected without opposition. The region promises a competitive election next year, though, with Germany, Greece, Ireland, Sweden, and the United States having announced that they will compete for the region's three seats. 

Human Rights Council members are expected to "uphold the highest standards" of human rights and "fully cooperate" with the council under the General Assembly resolution that established the body. Despite those standards, all four of the states elected from the Asian group this year have failed to respond promptly to requests by independent experts appointed by the council to visit. Four of the other elected states - Chile, Peru, Romania, and Italy - also have failed to respond to these requests.

In past years, human rights organizations mounted successful campaigns against the candidacies of Belrus (2007), Sri Lanka (2008), Azerbaijan (2009), and Iran, which withdrew its candidacy in 2010, when those candidates ran on competitive slates. Libya was elected when it faced no opposition, as were China and Saudi Arabia in 2009.

"The standards set by the General Assembly for Human Rights Council membership need to be more than just words," Hicks said. "We need competitive elections, and a yearly audit of whether council members are cooperating with the council as they have promised."


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